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May 26, 2011

Northeast Offshore Grab-Bag

Summer fishing off the Northeast coast conjures surprising Gulf Stream species

Warming Trends
When inshore water temperatures warm with definitive offshore temperature breaks (not homogeneous shelf water) clearly seen on satellite sea-surface charts or overlays (such as Terrafin, Hilton’s, SIRIUS, Offshore Satellite Services, ROFFS and others), it’s time to start making plans. Elvis will definitely be in the building! If you can find these hot zones of Gulf Stream water along offshore structure — such as fathom curves and shipwrecks — you increase the possibility of running into your target species by an exponential factor.

One of the most important tools for finding and staying in the promised land of warm-core eddies and hard temperature breaks is a dedicated sea-surface-temperature gauge. I’m not referring to the gauges included as a throw-in for your echo sounder’s options menu, which display tiny type in the upper-left-hand corner of your screen — those work fine as a backup. I’m talking about a dedicated, stand-alone gauge with large numbers that you can clearly see from 10 feet away in any light condition. I also prefer a nonnetworked gauge that continues to function if other systems fail.

Dytek used to make at least three different versions of sea-temperature gauges back in the 1990s, but that company fell victim to a corporate merger. Currently, Si-Tex makes the SST-110 ($289 without transducer/temperature probe), a dedicated, self-contained, waterproof, analog sea-surface temperature instrument with supersize digital numbers.

Airmar recently released the HT200 high-precision, digital sensor ($450). Its data can route to most NMEA 2000 networked displays, including dedicated instrument displays such as Furuno’s RD-33 or Simrad’s IS20.

The Usual Suspects
The nearshore August and September scene hosts shark species that include makos in the 30- to 150-pound range, hammerheads from 100 to 250 pounds, tiger sharks from small pups to some truck-size 600-pounders, the occasional blue shark that has lost its way, 100- to 250-pound threshers, plus brown (sandbar) sharks from 50 to 150 pounds. I wouldn’t be shocked to get a visit from a school-bus-size white shark on occasion, especially if whales or porpoises are swimming nearby.

Members of the tuna clan that frequent these same summer waters out to 25 fathoms include football-size ­skipjacks, Atlantic bonitos, false albacore and schoolie ­bluefins, which mix with porpoise pods. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you could expect to see some yellowfins in this blend. And while that no longer reliably happens, last season, bluefins and yellowfins from 40 to 200 pounds schooled in 198 feet of water southeast of Fire Island Inlet from July 4 through the end of September.

The tuna foraged on massive quantities of large sand eels, which quickly became their staple diet. Anglers dropped jigs to the bottom and executed either a quick lift-and-drop or a slow yo-yo technique for prompt success.

Wolf packs of makos and brown sharks came to hunt the same area, feeding on both the sand eels and the unsuspecting tuna. Other pelagics, such as ravenous schools of dolphinfish, jacks and trigger­fish (near structure such as buoys and flotsam), along with white marlin, blue marlin and wahoo, rounded out the list of summer’s piscine tourists.

Proven Techniques
Remain flexible regarding fishing methods. When I gear up for these trips, I plan for everything from trolling, drifting, casting, jigging and chunking to plugging. The rods and reels I take must all perform double and sometimes triple duty.

When I arrive in a pretargeted spot, I look for two things: temperature breaks with some clean Gulf Stream water in the 73- to 76-degree range, and some conspicuous sign of life such as slicks, birds, whales, porpoises or surface activity from baitfish or game fish. Be prepared to change plans if conditions appear unfavorable.

If I’ve placed shark drifting on the agenda, I troll early to catch football tuna or dolphinfish, either of which make prime forage for marauding sharks. If I spot any flotsam ­— such as boards, pallets, etc. — which attracts dolphinfish, I pull out the casting tackle. The first cast usually proves most productive. Place a bucktail or small metal jig within a few feet of the floating object. Any dolphin lurking nearby usually strikes right away.

Once the bite starts, throw handfuls of chunk baits such as butterfish or sardines to create a feeding frenzy. Follow up with a few hooked baits, and let the dolphin party begin.

When shark drifting, I run a four-rod spread, which includes a long, deep bait 50 yards out and 50 feet down (near the thermocline); another bait 30 yards out and 30 feet down; a third bait free-lined behind the chum pot and just out of sight; and a fourth bait below a heavy breakaway sinker positioned halfway between the thermocline and the bottom, directly under the boat.

If your game plan calls for covering ground on the troll, small lures such as jet heads, cedar jigs, Jap feathers, ballyhoo, squid daisy chains and spreader bars, Green Machines and others work well. My favorites include zucchini TC-200 Sevenstrand Tuna Clones (when squid are in the area) and Stalker Outfitters mini jets in purple/black, blue/black and green/yellow. Pattern your lures in the wake so they ride in clear water, and employ your flat line clips and outriggers judiciously. Run a mix of colors until you find one that works and then hammer that one home.

If you visit sea buoys that lie 10 to 25 miles off the beach, expect to see bar jacks, dolphinfish and blue runners. Hook the jacks on spinning rods and bait-casting gear for sheer fun.